Pelham reflects on a lifetime under the lights
Acclaimed opera singer Aviva Pelham has performed around the world, bridging many genres. The SA Jewish Report speaks to her as she releases her autobiography, My Musical Odyssey.
What inspired you to write My Musical Odyssey?
After 50 years in the performing arts, I wanted to record some of the highlights. The book is a glimpse behind the scenes of artistic life and the journey I undertook, having the privilege of making music with exceptionally talented people.
How did your career begin?
I studied piano and clarinet in my teens, and was accepted for a teacher’s licentiate course at the University of Cape Town (UCT) College of Music. Although I was disappointed at being turned down for second-subject singing, I auditioned for the Performers Diploma in Opera two years later, and was accepted. Professor Pierre De Groote invited me to sing with the UCT Orchestra, after which I was hooked on the combination of terror and thrill.
Describe your first stage performance?
I was entered into the Eisteddfod in what was then Salisbury, Rhodesia, at the age of three. Apparently, I refused to start singing my solo until I had found my mother in the audience, and waved enthusiastically.
What do you love most about entertainment?
First, I’m passionate about the power of entertainment to connect with emotions. Whether it’s comedy or tragedy, when a transformation takes place and people tap into how they feel, that’s something special. Second, over the course of my career, I’ve loved serving the great composers by using my voice to transport the audience. Finally, I enjoy bringing artists from every genre together, and weaving all the threads of voice, dance, comedy, lighting, sound, props, costumes, and so much more, into one tapestry. Over the past decade, I have directed many concerts with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, and I hope to continue doing this for years to come.
In spite of your international career, you have stayed very much a part of the South African Jewish community. What does it mean to you?
I belong here. My family are all members of the Gardens Synagogue, my children all went to Herzlia, and I have sung and directed countless concerts and fundraisers for Jewish institutions in Cape Town. While it’s certainly complex, South Africa is alive with possibility, and I thrive on this energy and potential.
What does being Jewish mean to you?
We’re called upon to be a light unto the nations. As a professional performer who has been in the public eye, my Judaism means that I need to be an ambassadress for the Jews in Cape Town. I take this responsibility seriously, and have always been guided by Jewish values.
Your family has always played a central role in your life. Why is it so important to you?
My life would have been immeasurably impoverished without them. I learn from them every day, they fulfil me, and I could never have been on this journey without them.
You speak of having sung for the late President Nelson Mandela. What was that like?
It was always an honour to be chosen to sing for Madiba, and he ensured every occasion was special. He made time to talk meaningfully to us artists, and that will remain a highlight of my career. When an honorary doctorate from Ben Gurion University was conferred upon him, I sang a beautiful song specially composed by Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph, with Marcus Desando. Madiba loved the song, and joined us in the dancing afterwards.
Looking back on your career, what do you regard as your most exceptional experience and your most challenging?
An unforgettable highlight was singing the encore at a performance in Sydney of Santa’s Story, my one-woman show about my remarkable mother’s life. On the screen behind me, there was footage of my mother singing with me, while my son, Adam, and his daughter Noa, joined me on stage. Four generations together – amazing!
My most challenging experience must be the pressure of performing in an opera company. Not having understudies meant that we had to perform even if we weren’t well. I so desperately didn’t want to let the audience down, but there was one occasion when I simply had to cancel due to laryngitis.
Your journey has been an inspiration to so many young singers/performers. What words of wisdom do you have for others?
One of my greatest joys is passing on the experience and knowledge that I have garnered over the years. I encourage a healthy, balanced lifestyle, self-discipline, perseverance, and generosity of spirit.
You have crossed the musical divide and sing so many different genres. Which is your favourite?
Opera is my first love. It encompasses all the other art forms, and is the most demanding, complex, and exhilarating. The infinite reward of singing the compositions of great geniuses, with an orchestra, chorus, and other magnificent voices, is unsurpassable. But performing musicals, which are accessible to more people, with the dialogue, acting, dance, and fun is always wonderful.
You do a great deal of outreach work and upliftment. Describe what you have done in this area.
I work on musical projects in the townships, doing workshops and directing fundraisers, trying to create opportunities so that talent doesn’t slip away. I try to uplift, inspire, and have a positive impact on people’s lives.
Over the years, I have mentored a trolley pusher, petrol attendant, policeman, caretaker, dustman, janitor, gardener, domestic worker, parking marshall, and countless street children. What a privilege!
What role are you most proud of?
Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady was my first role from a musical. Besides being demanding vocally from a frenzied, ‘Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins!’ to the soaring, ‘I could have danced all night’, it was Eliza’s growth as a person that taught me so much. She taught me that it doesn’t matter where you were born, what work you do, or the way you talk, if you have good values. Over 166 performances, I reached hundreds of thousands of people through Eliza. I’m beyond grateful for these kinds of opportunities.
What’s next for Aviva Pelham?
To mark Youth Day, I’ll be directing a concert called Soundscape with the Cape Philharmonic Youth Wind Ensemble. The theme is Movie Musicals Mania, so there will be many well-known songs from musicals. Next, I’ll be the guest artist at a gala concert in Sydney in early July with a fabulous Klezmer Band called Chutney. Back in Cape Town, I’ll be directing the 90th anniversary of the Eoan Group as well as the Amy Foundation Gala Dinner. I’ve also been asked to direct this year’s exciting Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra Community Gala Spectacular, and there’s another Morning Melodies looming – my 23rd annual concert at the Baxter. That’s what I have on my calendar … so far!